CAIN Web Service

Two elections,
two contests:

the June 2001 elections
in Northern Ireland

Jyrki Ruohomaki, Democratic Dialogue
August 2001


Preface       3

Executive summary       4

1. Introduction       5

2. The Northern Ireland political system       7

3. The results       13

4. The campaigns       17

5. The press coverage       29

6. A rerun of the agreement?       36

7. Conclusion       39



This is a discussion paper from the think tank Democratic Dialogue. Further copies are available, as hard copy (2 plus p&p) or e-mail attachment, from DD. Details are on the back cover, as is our web site, from which it can also be downloaded.

This paper was prepared by a Finnish political scientist interning at DD, Jyrki Ruohomaki. It provides a valuable external perspective on the dramatic elections in Northern Ireland to the Westminster parliament and district councils in June 2001. Full of perceptive insights, it comprehensively scrutinises the campaigns, the coverage and the implications of the results.

As with all DD reports and papers, the views expressed are ultimately those of the author alone. DD gratefully acknowledges the continuing support of the Community Relations Council and Atlantic Philanthropies in making such work possible.

Readers wishing to be kept in touch with DD events and publications should e-mail us to that effect. Information about closer engagement via subscription is on the web site.

Robin Wilson

Executive summary

All political-party systems are arranged around the distinction between friends and enemies. Every party defines itself over and against others. But ‘fair play’ must prevail: parties must accommodate others’ perspectives, rather than seeking their destruction. In Northern Ireland such political civility is not in evidence.

Indeed, one of the peculiarities of the political system in Northern Ireland is that it comprises two separate, antagonistic blocs. Any election becomes, in effect, two contests in which cross-community voting is insignificant. Implicit in the Belfast agreement was the hope that a single political entity would emerge, that the moderate centre would be strengthened and that common political themes would develop–in short, that Northern Ireland would over time evolve towards a normal liberal democracy. This is what a lasting peace requires.

The Westminster and local-government elections of June 7th 2001 betrayed no such trend. On the contrary, the electoral victors, Sinn Féin and the anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party, won on ‘traditional’ platforms. The former stood counterposed to the ‘post-nationalism’ of the SDLP; the latter excoriated the more pluralistic ‘new unionism’ of the Ulster Unionist Party leadership.

The overwhelming nature of the unionist-nationalist antagonism in Northern Ireland means there is no concept of the public sphere. Thus instead of elections taking account of public opinion in the round, they are in effect demographic contests in which politics is fought out in terms of who best defends each ‘community’ and non-confessional parties are squeezed.

The June elections were dramatic: seven out of 18 Westminster seats changed hands and, by comparison with 1997, the DUP emerged with its representation more than doubled, SF twice as strong. Yet these results, paralleled in the district-council polls, were not simply a victory for ‘extremism’. The successes of the DUP (which look less significant against the 1998 assembly elections) and SF were for different reasons.

The DUP could present itself as the united protector of the Protestant ‘community’, whereas the UUP leader, Mr Trimble, presided over a divided party and his message was blurred–sometimes even contradictory–as he unsuccessfully sought to appeal to different audiences. SF’s rise had been going on for some time and reflected its appeal to first-time-voting Catholics, as the ‘engine of change’ towards a united Ireland, whereas the SDLP’s pragmatic pitch for ‘real politics’ lacked any ideological backbone.

Pluralism can have a dark side–the institutionalisation of differences. A successful plural society must still comprise a single political entity. Northern Ireland remains some way from securing a bright political future.

1. Introduction

This paper evaluates the results of the 2001 Westminster and district-council elections in Northern Ireland. It does not focus on the specific results and polling numbers, but rather adopts a broader perspective, addressing inter alia the strategies of the various parties, the themes and issues dominating the campaigns, and the political implications of the outcomes. It concentrates on the four big parties–the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Féin–which dominate the political system, while exploring some aspects of the elections from the viewpoint of the smaller parties.

The political atmosphere in which the 2001 elections were held was stormy. Unionists opposed to the Belfast agreement, notably the DUP, claimed it no longer enjoyed the support of most Protestants–although a pre-election Belfast Telegraph poll (‘VOTERS BACK AGREEMENT’, May 22nd 2001) suggested otherwise. The main unionist party, the UUP, remained officially pro-agreement, but sharply divided between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps. The agreement thus defined the electoral battle within unionism from the outset. Whether this reduction of the elections to a single issue benefited either party is discussed below.

The two main unionist parties differ strongly in structure and internal cohesion. The UUP had for some time been in a state of turmoil, its leader, David Trimble, facing recurrent challenges from anti-agreement members–aided by the party rule requiring an annual leadership election–with most recently the MP for South Belfast, Rev Martin Smyth, as their figurehead. Personality thus came to the fore in the elections, as the unchallenged and charismatic DUP leader, Rev Ian Paisley, took on the threatened Mr Trimble.

Although in the nationalist bloc the campaign was very different, there too the agreement was on the table. Both nationalist parties were clearly pro-agreement, but there the similarity ended. The SDLP stood by the agreement, demanding its full implementation, including for example the transition to a new police service, while acknowledging that the decommissioning of paramilitary arms was the most urgent issue. On the other hand, SF was unwilling to focus on decommissioning, pressing those other parts of the agreement which it saw as in principle and chronologically prior. The campaign strategies were also completely different. Basically, the aim of the SDLP was to move closer to what its leader, John Hume, called ‘real politics’. This led to a very strongly policy-oriented campaign but perhaps its ideological core became less focused.

The difference was most apparent in the definition of nationalism. The SDLP described itself as ‘post-nationalist’, whereas SF held on to tradition. While the SDLP stressed it was part of a pan-European social-democratic movement, SF saw itself and its ideology attached to the island of Ireland–a politics based, though not entirely, on ‘ourselves alone’. The nationalist battle was not personified in the party leaders. Both, Mr Hume and his SF counterpart, Gerry Adams, held their parties firmly in their grip–at least before the elections–and did not have to address internal opposition during the campaign (at least not in public). Although the ideological diversity within the SDLP was clear, there really was not any visible opposition, comparable to that inside the UUP.

The material on which this paper is based comprises party manifestos, newspaper articles, television programmes and, to some extent, interviews with party officials and members of the media. Manifestos demonstrate the policies parties believe it right to emphasise to win elections. TV appearances by leaders and candidates clarify the various political messages while forcing the party representatives to respond more spontaneously, thereby widening and deepening the themes visible in the manifestos. Newspaper articles and editorials offer interesting analysis of these electoral themes, of the campaigns and the results–as well as indicating whether the media have any agenda of their own.

First, however, it is important to place in context the Northern Ireland political system. Its idiosyncracies lead to a form of party competition completely different from political systems elsewhere.

2. The Northern Ireland political system

2.1 The political map

The essence of politics is often said to be that it requires a certain amount of conflict–even in western liberal democracies. Politics is about deciding public policies and issues, which are rarely agreeable without the political process as a mediator. Many political scientists, most notably Carl Schmitt (1976), claim that without a conflict of opinions, determining the choice given to voters, democracy would lose its essence and the state would cease to exist.

Democracy is much more than simply a convenient procedure of public decision-making, converting votes into policies, getting things done. The essence of democracy is that it allows the interaction of individuals in the public sphere, freeing them from being able to express themselves only in relation to their private lives. This is the way of ‘normal’ western democracy. Here Northern Ireland, however, is different.

The common aspect of every political party is that it has to define itself, and its politics, in relation to its political opponents. It does not make sense to found a new party without any distinction from those pre-existing. This distinction, defining the friend and the enemy, as studied by Schmitt, has been related to the political realities of Northern Ireland by Arthur Aughey (1997: 1-13). More commonly, Schmitt’s theories have been used to describe the bipolarities of the cold war.

To define the enemy is vital to the party, because it is an act of self-definition. Without the enemy, and the threat that comes with it, the party would be useless in its particular polity. The essence of this division also demands that the distinction be kept–otherwise, according to Schmitt, the party will cease to exist and join its former enemy.

For Schmitt, and later developers of his theories, the necessity of the political and the impossibility of a world without antagonism are the building blocks of any society. On these premises, society as a political entity needs to find a way to sustain a pluralistic, democratic order. This requires acceptance of the division between friend and enemy.

But it does not require the enemy to be understood as something to be destroyed–rather as an ‘adversary whose existence is legitimate and must be tolerated’. The right of existence of the enemy, and its right to defend its ideas, is never to be questioned. The enemy is always opposed only on the level of ideas. This kind of ‘fair play’ definition of the political enemy has been lacking in Northern Ireland (Aughey, 1999: 131).

Aughey (1999: 123-124) draws a distinction between political civility and incivility. In political civility, difference and diversity are acknowledged, but they do not prevent the hegemony of the common interest as the ultimate goal of all party politics. Political civility means more than just a style of government or an altruistic way of life: ‘It assumes a relationship of obligation and recognition which governs the contest between the interests and parties in a political association.’

Such positive pluralism has yet to be introduced to the political arena of Northern Ireland. Its defining character has often been the politics of threat–with, in many cases, the threat of political violence used to gain political ground. The politics of threat efficiently prevents the birth of political civility–indeed, creating its opposite, incivility, destroying the unity of the political entity (Aughey, 1999: 143-144).

‘Friend’ and ‘enemy’ are quite strong words to people accustomed to a consensus-based ideal of politics. But the distinction is particularly useful in analysing politics in Northern Ireland, where these divisions are more visible and perhaps more important than in many other political systems.

The defining element in Northern Ireland politics is the antagonism between the nationalist and the unionist blocs. Even with the obvious relaxations which the ‘peace process’ has brought, this division is very much alive. It can easily be observed in voting behaviour under the current electoral system, where the number of votes transferred across the bloc divide is insignificant. Indeed, one aspect of Schmitt’s theory–the utility of the enemy in reflecting one’s own political preferences–is evident in Northern Ireland. This idea of a ‘good’, necessary, enemy is clearly visible in the unionist parties and their politics (Aughey, 1997: 11).

The lack of a common public sphere is a consequence of this bipolarity, where ‘parity of esteem’ has been built on denial, rather than acceptance, of the opponent. The tendency of western democracies to attenuate such strong polarity–however essential to politics–has been lacking in Northern Ireland, where the cycle of unresolved political antagonism has sharpened.

One of the principal features of democracy is that the governing coalition is expected to govern in the interest of the people as a whole, even when this means taking account of political enemies. Democracy, in its ideal, is not meant to be a dictatorship of those who rule at a particular time, but a system where the interests of the whole polity are considered, however much the policies arising from this consideration may vary (Mitchell, 1999: 93).

But the striking difference of the party, and political, systems of Northern Ireland is that elections have been just demographic calculations, each bloc more or less rejecting the aspirations of its opponents. Emphasising the bipolarity has become obligatory, instead of parties appealing to the ‘floating voter’ common to many other democracies. To maximise the vote (including partisan turnout), parties have had to appeal to voters claiming that the vital interests of their ‘community’ are under threat. This has, of course, come at the expense of the non-confessional, moderate parties, squeezed into the margin between the dominant blocs (Mitchell, 1999: 101-103).

The conflict in Northern Ireland has been described as ethno-nationalist. This is an attempt to capture its complex, multi-faced nature. It is more than a clash between Protestant and Catholic identities; its roots are in conflicting views on the legitimacy of the state and its boundaries and the associated contest of national identities, known as unionism and nationalism. Resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland is a difficult task, because these divisions are reinforced through socialisation by parents, education and other networks (Hayes and McAllister, 1999: 32-41).

Many aspects of politics in Northern Ireland, however, interweave. And it is arguable that the bloc divide does not mirror the true diversity of the society, but on the contrary endeavours to simplify it (Miller, 1998: 65).

Elections in Northern Ireland are thus, at one level, about the rivalry between the blocs. Yet, since the aim of party leaders has not been to appeal outside their ‘communities’, they have sought to stress the differences between the ‘two communities’ to maximise their vote in relation to their rivals within their own ‘community’. The fear of being labelled a sell-out–and the many examples of the disastrous consequences that can follow–has made sure that any attempt to approach political enemies in the other bloc has had to be carefully planned, and can still result in a leader’s downfall.

Has the Belfast agreement altered in any way the electoral strategies parties adopt? It would be too much to hope that the entire political culture would have changed so rapidly, but has there been any moderation, at least rhetorical, in the campaigns of particular parties? Also if there should be any moderation, which parties are involved, and which keep the more traditional rhetoric?

The main competition in the recent elections was indeed between different parties in their particular blocs–especially the competition within the unionist bloc around the pro- and anti-agreement positions was worth watching. Northern Ireland’s journey towards a lasting peace depends on a restructuring of the political field into something more akin to the liberal democracies of the west.


2.2 The party system

As indicated, most voters stay loyal to their ethnic blocs, with only a small minority voting for the non-confessional centre, currently represented by the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. Still, the results are not as stable and consistent as one might expect.

Looking back across recent decades, the main trend has been the continuous rise of the nationalist vote, partly due to the rising Catholic demographic share–though a Catholic majority is not inevitable. The other major trend has been the division between unionists, originating in the 60s, with the tensions it has brought to the political realm. The rising nationalist vote, and the appearance of the republican movement via SF on the political map, has made politics in the nationalist camp interesting: fear of the emergence of SF as the larger nationalist party has sparked many political processes, notably the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 (Boyle and Hadden, 1994: 56-59).

Although the roots of unionism and nationalism lie deep in history, they have both undergone change during the last three decades. On the nationalist side, the striking change has been the strong politicisation of the Catholic ‘community’. This politicisation emerged through the civil-rights movement of the 60s, which contributed to the rebirth of constitutional nationalism in the shape of the SDLP. The SDLP gave nationalists a forum to have their say in the Northern Ireland political system. This politicisation also destroyed the unionist diktat state and issued in direct rule, weakening significantly the hegemony of unionism.

The idea of Irish unity as cherished by the SDLP was very different from the old nationalist way of thinking, and included unionists in the political construction of the region, with a view to becoming part of a united Ireland. The politics of the SDLP have always been pluralist and consent-based, representing a restructuring of the old nationalist agenda. This restructuring and the articulation of other political issues–rather than just emphasising the ethno-nationalist conflict–has been backed by many surveys indicating the interest of the Catholic population in other, for example economic, matters (Miller, 1998: 65; Ruane and Todd, 1996: 98-101).

The republican movement was revitalised as a result of the IRA hunger strikes of 1980-81. The ideology of the republican movement differs from that of the SDLP–most importantly in its relationship to the ‘British presence’ in Northern Ireland. The republican movement continues to see that presence as a ‘colonial’ one, and has not hesitated in the past to use force to eliminate it. SF and the SDLP started to move towards each other during the late 80s, encouraging a moderation of the republican position, eventually leading to the ‘peace process’. But the nationalist parties have been strong rivals among the Catholic electorate and much of the moderation of SF and the politics of the SDLP must be seen through this prism. This rivalry manifested itself in the June elections, particularly in the refusal of the SDLP to form any electoral pact with SF.

The ideological restructuring inside unionism has been less significant. The defining change has been fragmentation, since Mr Paisley’s more ‘traditional’ unionism emerged to challenge the moderate politics of the then Stormont prime minister, Terence O’Neill. This division remains very much alive today–indeed, the main unionist parties, the UUP and the DUP, seem more divided than ever, especially over the ‘peace process’ and the Belfast agreement.

While the DUP still cleaves closely to tradition, Mr Trimble has moderated the politics of the UUP, allowing it first to engage in negotiations with SF and later to take part with republicans, alongside constitutional nationalists, in the government of the region. Mr Trimble’s leadership has resulted in fierce criticism–from both unionists and nationalists. Some unionists claim he is a sell-out, while some nationalists (conversely) see him as a hard-liner in moderate clothing.

Although substantive change in unionist thinking has not been as significant as in the nationalist camp, some change, in tandem, has definitely occurred. A ‘new unionism’ was born in the 80s and developed by academics such as Aughey, Paul Bew and Richard English. Its aim has been to establish an intellectually defensible argument for the union, combating the dominance of nationalist arguments in the discourse on Ireland’s partition. Mr Trimble has been seen as the political expression of this new kind of unionism, whereas Mr Paisley sustains the old, ‘no surrender’, variant.

The core of the unionist argument, old and new, is opposition to constitutional change, the focus of the debate about Northern Ireland. Unionists maintain that nationalist domination of this discussion has led to change imposed on unionists, disregarding the fact that they represent a majority of the population in Northern Ireland. Aughey has presented stark options for unionism as an ideology–to accept the, to some, inevitable and try to negotiate the best all-Ireland terms or to develop an intellectually solid argument for the union. Not surprisingly, the latter has been more popular among moderate unionists, while the traditionalists reject both (O’Dowd, 1998: 70-74).

One aspect of the stance of unionism towards nationalism has been the argument about ‘parity of esteem’. Politically this means that whatever measures are taken to resolve the situation should be accepted by both the nationalist and unionist ‘communities’. The academics of ‘new unionism’ have attacked this way of thinking, on the basis that ‘communities’ or ‘cultural traditions’ should not have a right of self-determination, which should be restricted to the people and states only.

Parity of esteem is the very basis of the Belfast agreement. But in the June elections it provided the spearhead of the rhetoric which the DUP aimed at nationalists: the ‘unionist community’ wanted its ‘civil rights’ too (O’Dowd, 1998: 84-87).

2.3 The party competition in figures

The 2001 elections should be seen against the backdrop of party competition in Northern Ireland, especially in the last two decades. In the unionist bloc the electoral dominance of the UUP was clear. It topped the polls against its rival, the DUP, in almost every election, being marginally second to it only in the local-government elections of 1981. The important exception to this rule has been elections to the European Parliament, where the opposite has been the case–the popular DUP leader, Mr Paisley, topping the poll and leaving UUP candidates trailing. Nevertheless, the margin between the two main unionist parties was otherwise substantial: the UUP has generally secured almost twice as many votes as the DUP.

The Westminster elections of 1997 were particularly bad for the DUP, which won only 13.6 per cent of the vote, compared with 32.7 per cent for the UUP, a ratio of 36:64 (Mitchell, 1999: 104). But the assembly elections of 1998 saw the gap much reduced, as the DUP gained 18.1 percent, as against 21.3 per cent for the UUP (Mitchell, 1999: 98; Elliot and Flackes, 1999: 598).

In the nationalist bloc the situation was even clearer: the SDLP was always the bigger nationalist party. Fear of SF’s electoral success may have given rise to the Anglo-Irish Agreement but, before and since, the SF vote was far behind that of the SDLP until the ‘peace process’ of the mid-late 90s, which saw the ‘second coming’ of the republican party. This has been interpreted in many ways, one of the most likely (and positive) being that the Catholic electorate wanted to encourage the republican movement on its non-violent path (Mitchell, 1999: 112).

In the 1997 local-government elections, SF’s share reached 16.9 per cent, against 20.7 per cent for the SDLP–a nationalist vote split of 45:55, compared with 25:75 in 1993 (Elliot and Flackes, 1999: 594). In the 1998 assembly elections the gap reopened somewhat, as the SDLP became the largest party in Northern Ireland in terms of votes, although it received fewer seats than the UUP.

But the trend in both camps towards the end of the 90s was for the gap between the leading party and its rival to diminish, while the DUP and SF remained in the minority within their ‘communities’ (Mitchell, 1999: 98; Elliot and Flackes, 1999: 598). Meanwhile, the nationalist bloc as a whole was advancing on the unionist bloc, although still significantly smaller: in the 1997 local-government elections, that gap was reduced to 10 per cent, as the combined unionist vote dropped below 50 per cent for the first time. And the vote of the non-confessional bloc remained under ten per cent–scoring 7.3 percent in the 1997 local elections (Mitchell, 1999: 102)–a barrier not breached since the Westminster elections of 1987.

3. The results

In Britain, the Westminster elections of June 7th 2001 were generally unsurprising, with Labour winning its second consecutive landslide victory over the Conservatives. Barely 20 seats out of 632 changed hands in England, Scotland and Wales put together. Yet in Northern Ireland seven of the 18 constituencies saw reverses and three seats were retained with only small majorities.

The biggest winners were the DUP and SF. By comparison with 1997, the DUP more than doubled its representation from two seats to five and SF added two seats to its previous two. This was the first election ever where the republicans overtook the SDLP. The UUP was clearly the biggest loser, suffering a net loss of four of the ten seats it had held four years earlier. The shares for the four main parties, plus the fifth-placed Alliance (accounting for almost half of the share for the other parties) were:


Total vote

Vote share (%)

MPs and constituencies




6 (South Belfast, East Antrim, South Antrim, North Down, Lagan Valley, Upper Bann)




5 (East Belfast, North Belfast, North Antrim, East Londonderry, Strangford)




4 (West Belfast, Fermanagh / South Tyrone, Mid-Ulster, West Tyrone)




3 (South Down, Foyle, Newry and Armagh)





The elections were dramatic, with victory in many cases marginal. From the nationalist perspective the two most important constituencies were Fermanagh / South Tyrone and West Tyrone. In the former, Michelle Gildernew (SF) topped the poll with 17,739 votes (34.1 per cent), against 17,686 for James Cooper of the UUP (34.0 per cent)–a majority of just 53 votes. This of course upset the unionist, who raised the issue of foul play, and the result has been challenged in court. In West Tyrone the SDLP imported its high-profile agriculture minister, Brid Rodgers, to spoil the expected victory of the SF candidate, the party vice-president, Pat Doherty. But the plan backfired–Ms Rodgers trailing third after the UUP candidate, Willie Thompson, and Mr Doherty taking the seat with 19,814 votes (40.8 per cent) with a majority of 5,040.

Also interesting is how the party leaders fared in their home constituencies. Messrs Paisley, Adams and Hume won convincingly; indeed, Mr Adams annihilated his main rival, Alex Attwood (SDLP), in West Belfast. The exception was Mr Trimble, who came close to losing his Upper Bann seat to David Simpson of the DUP–a local entrepreneur, fairly unknown and new in politics. Some commentators suggested that Mr Trimble only retained his seat with the help of nationalist votes. He and his wife, Daphne, even faced physical violence from DUP supporters, when the results where declared.

As some (though by no means all) commentators noticed, comparison of these Westminster elections with those held in 1997 is arbitrary. The whole political context has changed so vastly, due to the Belfast agreement, that the issues voted on in 1997 played a small part in these elections. Nor can one ignore the impact of the emergent institutions, like the assembly, in these elections. If one wants to make comparisons, therefore, the reasonable comparator can only be the assembly elections of 1998. The problem, of course, is that the latter operated under a different electoral system–PR-STV rather than first past the post. But such comparisons would nevertheless be more justifiable than with the last Westminster outing.

Changes in the unionist camp seem far less dramatic if we reflect on them via the assembly elections. While the UUP was the second largest party–losing to the SDLP in total votes (though not in seats)–in the latter, it re-emerged in the Westminster poll as the largest party, increasing its vote share from 21.3 to 26.8 per cent. Comparison of the total votes would not be fair because of the different counting method. The DUP also increased its vote share, from 18.1 to 22.5 per cent. In the nationalist bloc the SDLP dropped just one point, from 22.0 per cent in 1998 to 21.0 in 2001. SF’s share rose from 17.6 to 21.7 per cent.

This does not change the fact that the UUP lost over a third of its Westminster representation, that SF doubled its mandate in terms of MPs and that the DUP more than doubled its seat tally. But it gives a perspective to the results, maybe lacking in some commentators–allowing them to be seen as more complex than simply a ‘smashing defeat for the moderates’. And the restructuring of unionism following the post-agreement division into ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps was a factor: the DUP clearly benefited from being able to offer an uncontested no-vote opportunity, while the UUP was more divided.

So, if there were no real losers, in terms of vote share, among the bigger parties, where did their increased vote came from? The answer appears to be from the small and non-confessional parties. In the smaller parties, the biggest loser was the liberal Alliance, which fell back from 6.5 per cent in the assembly elections to 3.6 per cent in Westminster 2001–in part because of its willingness to stand down in favour of pro-agreement candidates under threat in an FPTP election. Also the anti-agreement United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP) lost its single mandate (partly because of the Alliance move) when its leader, Robert McCartney, was defeated in North Down by Lady Sylvia Hermon (UUP). The tendency is clear: while the smaller parties suffered, the bigger ones, especially SF and the DUP, increased their votes.

Let us now look at the elections on the same day to the 26 district councils in Northern Ireland (the table now adds to the minor parties already referred to the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party and the anti-agreement United Unionist Action Party):



Share (%)






































The largest-party status of the UUP was more marginal in the local-government than in the Westminster elections. If we compare the results with the district-council elections of 1997, the number of UUP councillors fell from 185 to 154, while the DUP increased its tally from 91 to 131. The vote-share gap between the two parties was also smaller than in the Westminster elections that day.

In the nationalist bloc, the SDLP came down only marginally, from 120 to 117 seats, while SF succeeded in its goal of breaking the 100 barrier, increasing the number of its councillors from 74 to 108. Yet although SF polled some 10,000 votes more than the SDLP it failed to surpass it in seats. This was mostly due to the wider representation of the SDLP in terms of constituencies. SF was victorious in Belfast, where it emerged as the biggest party in the council. It nevertheless subsequently failed to secure the position of mayor, since Alliance chose to support the UUP candidate.

Like the Westminster elections, the council polls were a setback for Alliance, which retreated from 41 seats to 28. The Women’s Coalition suffered too. The NIWC is a relatively new party, but taking the more recent assembly elections as the comparator, it received 1.6 per cent of the vote then but only 0.4 per cent in both the Westminster and local elections. Its share is diminished by standing in only a few constituencies and the party representative Kate Fearon was nevertheless pleased with the results. Ms Fearon pointed to the problems facing the smaller parties in terms of campaign finance but argued that the party’s strategy, emphasising canvassing, had paid off.

One of the shortcomings of the NIWC campaign was that its main theme was implementation of the agreement. True, its concept of implementation may have been very different from that of the main parties, but smaller parties have to be more distinctive to pick up votes. Running a campaign which only varied the themes raised by the bigger parties is not a way to success: the public does not necessarily take the time to look into these variations.

In sum, the elections reflected an increased willingess to vote according to the bloc divide, with a corresponding deterioration of the non-confessional centre–a trend clearly visible in the results for the APNI and NIWC. Taking a long-term view, the small, neutral parties (like the old Northern Ireland Labour Party) have had a chance of electoral success in the region only at times of relatively low political tension. As soon as tension rises, and the electorate starts voting more in terms of blocs, the smaller parties almost disappear from the electoral map.

The DUP managed to channel most of the anti-agreement vote under its wing, causing a major shift in the unionist camp towards a harsher, more ‘traditional’, politics, hurting the UUP electorally. In the nationalist camp the situation was different. The increased vote for SF did not come directly from the SDLP, whose vote fell only marginally (no matter which recent election we choose as comparator). The explanation offered by the SF councillor Eoin O Broin–that the increased vote came from first-time voters and from people who do not normally vote–seems reasonable.

It is also tempting to remark on the electoral impact of the political ‘division’ within the SDLP. Mr Attwood, chair of the party and a leading moderniser, suffered a huge defeat in West Belfast. Mr Hume, the party leader with a more traditional stance, remained supreme in his Foyle constituency. Does this mean that the electorate turned down the modernisation project of the party? Not necessarily, because there remain other reasons for the Attwood defeat–for example, the fact that as a chair he was more engaged in the election as a whole, failing to be sufficiently present in his constituency. Also Seamus Mallon, another representative of the ‘old guard’, while retaining his seat polled fewer votes in the Westminster election than did SF altogether in the local elections in that constituency. So, we cannot draw very strong conclusions about a desirable politics for the SDLP from these results.

The victory of the DUP and SF was clear and remarkable. But to assess the scale of that victory we cannot just compare these results with previous similar elections without taking account of the vast changes in the political context and, particularly, inside unionism.

4 The campaigns

4.1 The unionist campaigns

The very basis of election campaigns are the manifestos, in which parties introduce the policies they intend to adopt after being given the mandate of the electorate. Although it is often said that manifestos become obsolete after elections, they still state the promises which parties have to try to keep to remain in favour with the electorate.

The UUP’s election manifesto was personal: the leader, Mr Trimble, was photographed for the cover sitting behind his desk looking active (pen in hand) and responsible. The basic message was that the party keeps on delivering. It claims to be the best protector of the union, peace and democracy–its gloss on the ‘peace process’, for which the party claims credit. The party also wants to deliver greater prosperity, improved quality of life, good education, better health services and the protection of rights. What is common to all of these, of course, is that they are very abstract promises–easy to make, since they do not require keeping any particular promises. All are also so acceptable to every voter that the UUP’s manifesto can be said to be very inclusive.

The basis of the UUP’s ideology is ‘Britishness’. Britishness is defined as including all sections of the community and as having an historical basis allowing unionists to make a claim based on continuity. Britishness as a political affiliation is, according to the manifesto, willingness to take part in the affairs of the British ‘nation’. This ideology, liberal and inclusive, is obviously straight from the ‘new unionism’: Mr Trimble claimed, plausibly, to have written the manifesto himself.

The manifesto also sought to appeal to the need for ‘security’, again a concern shared by most people in Northern Ireland. The UUP tries to advance lawfulness by being firmly against the paramilitaries and giving the police more rights, including wire-tapping. The party also wants (vaguely) to develop a culture of lawfulness in schools, churches and so on. The creation of a new culture is also something linked to ‘new unionism’.

According to the UUP manifesto, the union guarantees the economic strength of the region, so that it should not be kept alive just because of the tradition which it calls Britishness. Overall, the manifesto tried to emphasise the benefits to voters of voting UUP. The UUP is a firm supporter of devolution and wants more power for district councils as well as a reduction of administrative bodies. It also emphasises the history of delivering upon its promises to the electorate. On the last pages of the manifesto were the party’s former election pledges, which it claimed to have fulfilled.

Overall, the impression conveyed by the UUP manifesto was of trying to downplay the conflict between the UUP and the DUP or between the two blocs. The UUP was presented as a statesperson’s party, with Mr Trimble as the statesman. The manifesto avoided being antagonistic or even clearly unionist, at least in the traditional, sharp way of the DUP. For the UUP the union is more of a basis upon which the party creates its policies. Indeed, the notion of the union was described quite abstractly, a style which dominated the manifesto.

In not offering many concrete policy measures, the UUP manifesto was certainly open to interpretation. It could be argued that this had a purpose–to liberate the party’s policies after the elections from prior promises. Introducing the manifesto, Mr Trimble made a point of saying that all UUP candidates stood by it, though several anti-agreement candidates were not present at the launch (News Letter, May 22nd 2001).

The DUP manifesto was completely different. Whereas the UUP relied for its cover image on the stature of Mr Trimble, the DUP used a child and the Union flag to promise a better future. The slogan ‘Leadership to put things right’ also gave a very different, challenging, tone to the DUP manifesto. But it was personal too: it would be foolish not to use the charisma of the party leader, and the manifesto began with a statement signed by Mr Paisley. The tone, from start to finish, was however very antagonistic. It was aggressively against the UUP, the Belfast agreement and the republican movement.

The DUP clearly plays with the oldest fears of Protestants–the possibility of a republican dictatorship leading to the destruction of the ‘unionist community’ and the freedom of the ‘Protestant people’. The basic message of the DUP is that the UUP can not be trusted to defend the union against republicans, and so Mr Trimble represents a threat to the union equal to that presented by the republican movement. The DUP manifesto represented the symbols of Britishness, like the Union flag, as to be defended against such attack.

Thus while the DUP also uses the abstract level, like the UUP, at the same time it connects this to something concrete–like the girl and the flag on the cover of the manifesto–making the message much more powerful. The politics of the DUP are also more populist than those in the UUP manifesto. For example, it promised to keep rates down and complained about the Executive Committee spending too much on north-south meetings. The DUP also opposes any attempts to integrate the Northern Ireland economy with that of the republic, allegedly for political purposes.

The DUP manifesto sought to describe and legitimise the party as the sole protector of unionists from the ravages of the republican movement–thereby defining itself against two separate enemies threatening the ideas of the DUP electorate. It tried to establish the old antagonism between unionism and nationalism as the decisive political factor on which Protestant voters should make their decision: concrete political questions are not important in themselves but in as much as they work to illustrate this division. Once the centrality of that division is accepted, the DUP can then present itself as the only protector of unionism.

The DUP manifesto was thus very antagonistic, populist and more practical, whereas that of the UUP manifesto was moderate, modern and abstract. The DUP emphasises the party’s unity, whereas the UUP is divided over the agreement. The DUP manifesto did however contain some contradictions, when it claimed credit for policies accomplished: many were made possible through the assembly committees, where the party claims not to be co-operating.

Notable by his absence from the Hearts and Minds and Spotlight current-affairs coverage of the election on BBC was the DUP leader. Fronting instead for the party on Hearts and Minds on BBC2 was the deputy leader and East Belfast MP, Peter Robinson, while Nigel Dodds, the party’s candidate for North Belfast, appeared on Spotlight on BBC1. Was this an attempt to present a more moderate and modern image of the party, without Mr Paisley?

On Hearts and Minds (May 15th 2001), Mr Robinson defended ‘traditional’ unionism as offering no threat to anyone. Its main virtue, and that of the DUP, was democracy, presented in terms of ‘majority rule’. Mr Robinson’s idea of power-sharing was that while inevitable it should be applied only between unionist parties, though possibly extending to the SDLP. On this basis, the agreement had to be cast aside or renegotiated, as it did not enjoy the trust of the ‘unionist community’. Mr Dodds also emphasised the democratic principle of the DUP, though he failed to give an account of how it could realise decommissioning.

The DUP claims to have accepted the result of the referendum, but says it is working inside the system to change it. The election, according to the DUP, was a chance to ‘put things right’. The main task of DUP representatives in their television appearances seemed to be to attack the UUP, especially its leader. Messrs Robinson and Dodds claimed Mr Trimble had sold out unionism, was making far too many concessions to republicans and nationalists, and was responsible for putting ‘terrorists’ into government.

Mr Robinson presented the DUP’s mission in the assembly as simply opposing the republican agenda, though Mr Dodds claimed the DUP was not against any particular party but only wanted to see majority rule fulfilled. Mr Robinson strongly denied that the DUP had anything to do with SF in the executive, although the presenter gave some contrary evidence. The legitimacy of the DUP is clearly built on this notion–that it is, indeed, the uncorrupted protector of the union against the republicans. It gains nothing by moderation and therefore chose to run a very antagonistic campaign, benefiting from the disarray of its unionist rival. The party used ‘parity of esteem’ as its weapon, demanding the renegotiation of the agreement, on the basis that it lacked the approval of both ‘communities’.

The DUP’s aim in the elections was to maximise the anti-agreement vote. By doing so it hoped to be able to renegotiate the agreement and eventually exclude republicans, although not the SDLP. Mr Robinson claimed that if SF were not excluded from the executive, this would lead to a great democratic upheaval: ‘the people’ could not accept the deeds of the republican movement and they wanted a change towards ‘democracy’. This implicit hint of possible unrest is of course very powerful in Northern Ireland, highlighting the desire of the DUP to exploit the fears of the electorate. Its television appearances continued the tactics and rhetoric of the manifesto–strongly antagonistic against the republican movement and the UUP.

On Hearts and Minds (May 31st 2001), Mr Trimble denied that the elections would be about the agreement, a rerun of the referendum. He claimed most people had moved on and accepted change. He relied on opinion polls indicating most Protestants remained pro-agreement. But throughout the campaign the UUP leader was forced to defend his party from DUP allegations. No, his party was not divided but stood united behind the manifesto. Progress and decommissioning would only happen via the agreement.

Mr Trimble repeated his stand on decommissioning during the following week on Spotlight, claiming, as earlier, that his ultimatum to resign as first minister would eventually deliver it. He said the 2000 suspension of the assembly had forced republicans into concessions, although he denied threatening anyone–merely pointing to the consequences, if republicans failed to meet their obligations.

The UUP leader was also much more moderate on the policy issues than the DUP representatives. Especially on policing he saw the major question as how to create an effective police force, whereas the DUP insisted on maintaining the name and insignia of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Mr Trimble also wanted policing to be devolved, so that nationalists could share responsibility for the matter instead of just complaining. He sees the argument as a factor widening the political agenda.

This is very interesting when we take into account that he is also talking about a cultural change in which disagreement in politics is natural and understandable. This could be interpreted as Mr Trimble trying to guide unionism off its ancient tactics, which have relied on polarisation and sharpening the differences between the two blocs, and moving towards a more pluralist society which acknowledges differences. It seems that the ‘peace process’ has paid off, at least on a rhetorical level.

By talking about a widening political agenda, Mr Trimble is in a way bringing politics in Northern Ireland for the first time to its original meaning. Previously, it was about maintaining unionist dominance or trying to resist it. This was perfectly captured in a statement by the first Stormont prime minister, James Craig, in 1927, when he said that he wanted in the parliament ‘men who are for the Union on the one hand, or who are against it and want to go into a Dublin parliament on the other’ (Mitchell and Gillespie, 1999: 69).

The old Northern Ireland politics, allied to unionist hegemony, effectively wiped out any possibility of dialogue between the ‘two communities’ for decades. The modernisation of Northern Ireland politics could mean the creation of a real political space, where political disagreement can be addressed. Clearly Mr Trimble believes this could be the way to a better and more prosperous future.

The UUP leader accused the DUP of hypocrisy: in reality its assembly members and ministers were working happily together with the other parties. Indeed, Mr Trimble claimed the DUP, clinging on to its offices, did not want to suspend the assembly to force concessions from republicans.

But his persistent device of attacking the DUP’s ‘hypocritical’ approach implied the claim that only the UUP–and not its rival–could be trusted to watch over the interests of the Protestant ‘community’. He still emphasised that the main political enemies of the UUP were republicans, who were not keeping their commitments. And his statement advising electors to vote for all unionist candidates on the list, before turning to other possibilities, also cast him in a traditional light.

Mr Trimble’s television appearances were thus a contradiction. While they gave a glimpse of a change in the political culture, they were also quite traditional. He still sees the conventional battle inside the unionist bloc as more important than the new dimensions provided by the agreement. Compared with the DUP’s simple and straightforward rhetoric, the issues raised by Mr Trimble were more subtle, complicated and demanding for the viewer.

One interesting aspect of the unionist campaign was the first minister’s post-dated resignation letter. Indicating this would conditionally take effect on July 1st, he handed it to the speaker of the assembly on May 7th (Belfast Telegraph, May 8th 2001). Mr Trimble told the speaker that he had been forced to offer to resign because there had not been sufficient movement on decommissioning by the IRA.

Without going deeper into the ethics of his decision, it was labelled by many commentators as an electoral trick to undermine the ‘sell-out’ claims of the DUP and his own party opponents. And many claimed, at least until the results were published, that it had worked. We may never know whether it was a selfish, irresponsible manoeuvre to manipulate voters or an altruistic attempt to save the ‘peace process’–or, indeed, whether it did save the UUP from a far more devastating defeat. The fact remained, nevertheless, that since no move from the IRA followed Mr Trimble had to follow up his letter, duly resigning as first minister on July 1st.

As leader of the UUP, the campaign placed Mr Trimble in a very difficult position. On the one hand, he had to appeal to pro-agreement Protestants–who supposedly formed the majority–reassuring them that the path chosen was right, and was leading to a peaceful and prosperous future. This implied relaxing the old antagonism and articulating a new unionist politics more amenable to negotiation and compromise, indeed willing to recognise nationalist aspirations. Yet in so doing he opened himself to fierce attack from the DUP and the hard-liners in his own party. In consequence, his room for manoeuvre was very limited.

Mr Trimble had no choice but to try to appeal to both factions inside unionism–leading to some contradictory statements and, more threateningly, to an inevitable blurring of the UUP message. Forced to use two different, and contradictory, rhetorics, he contributed to the serious lack of effectiveness of his campaign.


4. 2 The nationalist campaigns

The nationalist parties also published their manifestos stating goals and policies to be implemented if they were given the power to do so. Yet there were strong differences with those of the unionists.

The SDLP manifesto was the most comprehensive. Unlike the others, the introduction was not signed by the party leader, Mr Hume–perhaps to imply that it represented the united stance of the party. The introduction, like the rest of the document, was agreement-oriented, as suggested by the title: ‘It’s Working. Lets Keep building.’

The party attributed recent developments to the agreement and affirmed respect for all traditions in the region. The SDLP had delivered on power-sharing, north-south bodies and good working relations with Britain. The message was that, with a dedication to respect others, it would continue on its road of securing progress through the agreement.

The SDLP sees the agreed political structures as a way to unite people. Its policy is clearly consensus-seeking, trying to avoid conflicts: the manifesto said it was the only party playing a full and constructive role in the executive. Key issues for the Westminster elections, according to the SDLP, were: the criminal-justice review, a bill of rights, drugs policy, public finance and fiscal autonomy, and entry to the euro.

The manifesto had five main sections: economic development, social development, equality and human rights, justice and policing, and EU and international affairs. These headings cover a vast range of issues, and the manifesto did its best to tackle many of them. The subtitles varied from securing investment, to education and health, to policing, to the single currency.

The aim was clear: the SDLP was trying to display its commitment to pragmatic policies, as against the old-fashioned, ideologically saturated, politics polarised around national identities and tribalism. The party was trying to rise above all that, claiming that it should all be put behind in favour of the new premises, through ‘real’ politics.

The SDLP’s manifesto was very pragmatic, offering a solution to almost every problem in Northern Ireland–and, indeed, in the European Union. Although it hinted many times at the party’s nationalist character–for example, claiming SDLP accomplishments vis-à-vis all-Ireland co-operation–the stance remained quite unclear. As a herald of the new politics, it was in may ways quite apolitical, lacking a clear ideological backbone. The social-democratic nature of the party could be read between the lines, but the ideological roots of the many pragmatic proposals presented were not apparent. This may well have been intentional, with an intent to appeal to the moderate average voter, or to the more ideologically conservative SF voter.

The SF manifesto was more mainstream, in being signed by the leader, Mr Adams. The introduction asserted that the party was delivering peace through the Belfast agreement, despite the best efforts of the British government and the Ulster Unionists to stop it. Mr Adams emphasised the importance of the elections to increase the SF ‘mandate’ in what was to become the Weston Park negotiations.

SF represents itself as the party which is the engine of change and offering real leadership, honouring commitments under the agreement and only asking others to honour theirs. With increased political power given to SF, the ‘peace process’ and change would become irreversible. SF was moving towards its goal of a united Ireland with representation, co-operation and political changes. Although the party was standing in the Westminster elections it saw no value in the Westminster parliament, and wanted to use only the offices and services provided for MPs for its own purposes.

The policy part of SF’s manifesto was quite large, almost matching that of the SDLP. The party was trying to project an image where it would no longer be seen as the extreme, republican party, but ready and willing to assume larger responsibilities. Still, the anti-Britishness of the party and its basic agenda, based on the goal of a united Ireland, were clearly visible in the text. SF affirms its policies more strongly, connecting them to its overall goal–thus avoiding the fate of the SDLP, where the policy seems separate, without ideological connotations.

The local-election manifesto of SF was quite similar. It repeated the engine-of-change claim and it criticised the SDLP for denying it key positions by forming alliances with unionists. This, of course, is a powerful claim–implying that the SDLP is selling out its nationalist principles. SF also claims to challenge the ‘bigotry’ of unionists, thereby attacking them too. The manifesto emphasised the dynamism of SF as the fastest growing party in Ireland, ‘a vibrant force in Irish politics’.

Although the politics were more visible in the SF manifestos than in those of the SDLP, they were both very policy-oriented. Both appeared to be addressing the moderate, average voter, though from completely different premises. The SDLP was trying to show that it was the only party capable of rising above the polarised situation and working on real political questions. SF, on the other hand, was trying to put behind its extreme image and show that it too could be constructive.

The title of the SF Westminster manifesto, ‘Building an Ireland of equals’, implied a readiness to accept the rights of non-nationalists, but it stressed the claim that the northern Catholic population remained unequal. The language was again more political than the SDLP’s. SF clearly labels its political enemies–unionists. The SDLP’s rhetoric was not directed against anyone: it tried to define the politics of the party through its policies, not through negations and differences.

If we apply Schmitt’s theory to this, the tactic chosen by the SDLP was a failure. Without defining the enemy, the party will sooner or later become absorbed by its rivals, no longer described as its enemies. SF, by defining unionists as its chief opponents–instead of the SDLP, which is actually its main rival for votes–implicitly presents itself as the best protector of the Catholic ‘community’. The problem with the SDLP manifesto was that it said nothing to counter that claim–a claim which, politically speaking, is much more powerful than the agreement and policy-oriented message of the SDLP.

The BBC appearances of Mr Hume (Hearts and Minds, May 22nd 2001; Spotlight, June 5th 2001) were very much in line with the message in the manifesto and in his newspaper articles. In the television programmes, however, he was forced to answer questions the SDLP avoided in its manifestos. For example, he was pressed to define the difference between his party and SF, proving that the gap between them had become blurred by the tactics chosen.

Mr Hume found many differences, but all revolved around the claim that the SDLP was interested in ‘real’ politics, whereas republicans were not living in the real world. An example of this SF parallel universe was its opposition to the euro, which in Mr Hume’s opinion was against common sense. As also mentioned in the manifesto, he contrasted the SDLP’s lobbying in the US for investment in Northern Ireland with SF’s focus there on party fundraising, and stressed the connection of the SDLP to the social-democratic family of sister parties in Europe.

Mr Hume claimed SF’s picture of partition was outdated: divided minds, rather than divided territory, needed to be tackled. This should be done thorough a ‘healing process’, based on the framework of institutions established by the agreement and respect for differences. He was for working together, as opposed to the forced victory allegedly sought by SF.

The agreement-oriented ideology of the SDLP became more clearly visible through these TV appearances than in the policy-oriented manifesto. Mr Hume emphasised that the basis of every society was agreement on how to govern, that lack of this agreement had resulted in conflict in Northern Ireland and the ‘peace process’ represented hope in reaching that agreement. Mr Hume contrasted the SDLP–with this abstract, universal underpinning–with the other main parties, based on ethnic divisions, claiming that it was thus the only real-politics party.

Mr Hume’s election appearances were an effort to connect the pragmatism of the manifesto and the new ‘post-nationalism’ of many party members. On the friend-enemy axis of Schmitt, the enemy for the SDLP was not any particular party, but the possibility of losing the agreement and moving away from an agreement-oriented society. The SDLP defines itself as the protector of tolerance and constitutionalism, with intolerance the enemy. But on a rhetorical level defining one’s main opponent as something as vague as intolerance is not very powerful. Though Mr Hume’s message may appeal to the pragmatic, reason-oriented and social-democratic voter, the place of the SDLP on the political map of Northern Ireland is not too obvious.

Mr Adams continued the ‘moderation’ of SF, notable in its manifesto, in his television appearances (Hearts and Minds, May 8th 2001; Spotlight, June 5th 2001). He said the aim of the party was to become the largest in the north, and this goal was achievable. He refused to allow SF to be pigeon-holed, like loyalists or nationalists–apparently trying to slough off its tribal image. He claimed Northern Ireland could not work on its own and needed an all-Ireland aspect, leading towards a single political and economical entity.

But Mr Adams emphasised SF’s ‘peace strategy’ towards its goal, requiring understanding between the people. He repeated his claim that Protestant voters would be better off in a united Ireland, where they would constitute a much bigger minority (20 per cent) than currently in the UK (2 per cent). He also rehearsed the importance of the elections in relation to the coming negotiations.

Both appearances by the SF leader were conciliatory. He professed to understand supporters of the DUP but still thought people should not listen to that party. He implied that SF was working for the benefit of unionists too. The tone was very post-conflict. He was saying that the role of the SF leadership was to broaden the space where peace could grow–interestingly near the widening space of politics of which Mr Trimble was talking. In his first appearance, he criticised the SDLP as confined to the north and insufficiently radical, but that was almost the only thing he said about it. Especially in his latter appearance, he presented the DUP as more of an enemy of his party–although there was not a single voter floating between the two.

The rhetoric of the SF leader can be interpreted as an effort to take credit for the ‘peace process’: a vote for the former was a vote for the latter, he said. The obverse, however, is no vote, no process–which implies extortion. Mr Adams criticised his opponents, especially the DUP, for the danger those enemies of the peace were causing. And he criticised the British government for allowing Mr Trimble to make threats to the process.

Mr Adams was constructing a picture, where only SF corporately, and he personally, were really trying to keep the process going. This is, of course, a step towards more moderate and mainstream politics for SF. But it is also a deliberate attempt to milk votes, using the ‘peace process’. Almost all the pro-agreement parties use this tactic, but SF pulls it off most convincingly.

The aim of SF, as stated before the elections, was to strengthen its political power by increasing its ‘mandate’. The party was looking for two additional Westminster seats and more than 100 councillors–both accomplished. The party also achieved its goal of become the largest nationalist party in the north, at least in terms of votes. SF was the only party mentioning the link between the elections and the negotiations, aiming to strengthen its negotiating team.

Before the elections the party was very confident about its success, relying on the ‘well-oiled election machine’ of its large organisation. The party also believed it could make the difference in terms of its nationalist rival, the SDLP, because it was more part of the ‘community’. Also the party expected to benefit from its unity, compared with the diversity of the SDLP, according to Mr O Broin.

We can also speculate about the possible impact of the Trimble resignation letter. If the letter was meant to help the UUP, by stripping the DUP of its most powerful weapon–the ‘sell-out’ claim–it also put decommissioning at the centre of the elections. As every party (other than SF) agrees that SF is the party with the most influence on IRA decommissioning, the letter paradoxically justified the SF claim of being the ‘engine of change’. Republican rhetoric was reinforced, being now effectively backed by the main unionist party. This explains why the SDLP was such a strong critic of Mr Trimble’s act, which played right into the hands of its SF rival.

The campaigns in the unionist and nationalist blocs were very different. Both unionist campaigns were much more aggressive and hostile than those in the nationalist camp. The themes raised were also much more restricted: the elections there were almost entirely about the Belfast agreement–indeed sometimes whether Mr Trimble was traitor or saviour. In the nationalist bloc the elections were much more policy-oriented. SF tried to rid itself of its ‘extremist’ connotation and ran a moderate campaign, while the SDLP’s answer was a pragmatic campaign which sought to undermine SF’s policies. Altogether the nationalist parties raised many more issues during their campaigns.

It is thus not hard to understand why there is not much cross-community voting in Northern Ireland elections. The underlying reason is of course ethnic division, but even without taking that into account there seem to be two completely separate campaigns, which hardly address any issues raised in the other bloc.


4. 3 The other campaigns

The manifesto of the APNI also began with an introduction by the party leader, Sean Neeson. The message was that while the agreement had brought many benefits, it was under threat and society was more polarised than ever. According to Mr Neeson, Alliance has the capacity to save the agreement and the ‘peace process’. Other parties could not be relied upon to build a ‘shared, non-sectarian society’.

The APNI seeks to lessen polarisation by promoting sharing rather than separation–for example, in housing and education–and combating political division at all levels. The manifesto concentrated on ending this separation, rescuing the rule of the law, protecting human rights, creating new symbols and addressing constitutional matters. Practical proposals aimed to reduce violence and enhance pluralism. The party also wants to reform the institutions so that Northern Ireland would look more like a normal liberal democracy. Alliance also supports the welfare state, being pro-Europe and internationalist.

Although Alliance clearly tries to be neutral, when it comes to the bloc divide it leans towards the unionist side. This is implicit in the way it sees the UK as a more natural political forum for Northern Ireland. For example, the party favours UK entry into the euro zone, without paying much attention to the European policies of the republic.

Alliance always faces a difficult situation in elections. By distancing itself from the bloc division, it also distances its potential supporters, who may have difficulty finding the party. Alliance says that the other, tribal, parties cannot be trusted. But this also brings its rhetorical style closer to that of the unionist parties–criticising other parties more clearly than the consensus-oriented nationalists. If there are always two separate elections going on in Northern Ireland, Alliance becomes in effect part of the unionist election.

Alliance claimed that only it could save the ‘peace process’, but so did all the other parties. Even the DUP, it can be argued, was not out to destroy the process but to gain control of it. So the rhetoric of Alliance is not very original: it is more a combination of the two blocs. The tone of the rhetoric is taken from the unionist camp, while the ideology–liberal-democratic, in the political centre–bears many similarities to the SDLP. So while the party fills nicely the gap this lack of originality undermines the most powerful electoral weapon it could have–presenting itself as defender, not of this or that ‘community’, but of the agreement. When almost everyone else also supports the agreement, by their lights, the room for political manoeuvre for Alliance is very small.

Northern Ireland has been a conservative political arena in terms of women’s representation. No woman, before these elections, had been returned to Westminster since 1969 when Bernadette Devlin (Unity) became an MP. Indeed, Northern Ireland had previously returned a total of only three women in its history. But one of the implications of the ‘peace process’ has been the appearance of women in the politics of the region. This was clearly illustrated when three women secured Westminster seats in these elections, although the number of female contestants did not rise above the 1997 tally (Irish News, May 30th 2001).

The NIWC has been in the vanguard of this process of improving the position of women in politics. The main message of its manifesto was that the people of Northern Ireland should ‘keep the agreement working’. At the launch the NIWC leader, Monica McWilliams, said her party was committed to work for ‘freedom and security, access to high standards for services and rights for all, not privileges for a few’. The key issues were: an open, accountable and representative police service, with a ban on plastic bullets; a strong bill of rights; a new, accessible criminal-justice service; an end to ‘11+’ selection; abolition of tuition fees for students; and guaranteed access to high-quality health care and medication (News Letter, May 24th 2001).

The politics of the NIWC are pragmatic, which could be interpreted as indicating a lack of ideological consensus in a party based on gender issues–though this was denied by the party representative Ms Fearon. She said the party was not based only on gender concerns and had a distinctive, left-wing ideology based on human rights. Its distinction, with regard to the ‘peace process’, was that it believed this should be a full-time process, and one not excluding the smaller parties.

Ms Fearon sees the mission of the coalition as putting women's participation on the political map and doing politics in a different way–making it more inclusive and participatory. Prof McWilliams (Hearts and Minds, May 29th 2001) claimed the NIWC had raised the profile of women in politics and the increased number of women candidates, across parties, meant in that sense the coalition can be pleased with the results.

The focus of the campaign for the coalition was canvassing and a grassroots approach. As a relatively new party, its main task was to consolidate its support. Only time will tell if this succeeded. Interesting, however, is that about 40 per cent of the NIWC vote comes from men. This could indicate potentially broad support. Slightly more of the women supporting the party are Protestants, mainly because the Catholic parties offer better political homes for women than the more conservative Protestant ones.

5 The press coverage

5.1 General coverage of the elections

The press coverage of the elections in Northern Ireland was notably different in London from in Belfast. While the regional papers inevitably paid a lot of attention to the campaigns, the British papers almost completely neglected them. That only changed just before the elections–and then certainly thereafter–when they noticed that the ‘peace process’ and positive developments in Northern Ireland could be at stake.

The Independent (May 3rd 2001) published an article by the Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid. Dr Reid appealed for a lasting peace, linking it to enhanced prosperity, and claimed such developments would not survive if the elections led to dismissal of the ‘peace process’. The article was very much a pitch to practical ‘common sense’ and a warning that improved well-being could be jeopardised without the ‘right’ results.

An article in the Financial Times by its Ireland correspondent (May 30th 2001) struck the same tone. The elections would determine the direction of the ‘peace process’, and the wrong result could be fatal. The article backed Mr Trimble personally, saying, that although the DUP was very much against him, nobody really wanted to get rid of him: most wanted him to stay because of the process and even for his critics he made an excellent ‘bogeyman’. The FT thus matched Aughey’s claim about Schmitt’s relevance to the context of Northern Ireland: Mr Trimble is the necessary and useful enemy of the DUP, which it needs to legitimise its own political position.

The Ireland editor of the Observer, Henry McDonald, urged people (June 3rd 2001) to vote tactically before the elections. He also emphasised that the elections were very much about the survival of the agreement–describing them as a second referendum–and the maintenance of stability. After the elections, Mr McDonald was understandably gloomy (Observer, June 10th 2001). His worst-case scenario had come true. SF’s ‘greening of the west’ had become a fact, with the eastern unionist seats largely in the hands of anti-agreement MPs.

Mr McDonald saw the geographical partition of the region as a real threat, issuing into a new political crisis and the re-emergence of political violence. Analysing the reasons for the SDLP’s defeat, he argued that moving from ‘post-nationalism’ to a more nationalist position would not work either: it would be impossible and stupid for the SDLP to try to ‘outgreen’ SF. This is likely to be true, although the problem of incoherence remains.

Where there was similarity between Belfast and London papers was in backing Mr Trimble. A News Letter editorial titled ‘Seldom has there been so much to gain, so much to lose’ (June 7th 2001) was typical. Especially when the ‘dangers’ of the election loomed, the press overwhelmingly backing the ‘moderate centre’ of Mr Trimble’s UUP and Mr Hume’s SDLP. In Britain and Northern Ireland the reaction was the same, with great consensus about the ‘right’ result.

But the stark implications of what might happen were not registered clearly and early by the regional press either. On May 10th the News Letter was wishing in its editorial for elections that truly affected daily life, rather than another ‘sloganising, flag-waving exercise’. By the morning of the elections (as cited above) the tone was more shrill: a vote for anti-agreement unionists would threaten ‘the future workings of devolved government and all that goes with it–including the opportunities offered by social regeneration, inward investment and economic growth’.

Even though the possibility of victory for anti-agreement unionists was known to everyone right from the start, the prospect was downplayed from the first weeks of the campaign: only ‘minor’ losses to the DUP were anticipated (News Letter, May 20th 2001). This may have been partly to inhibit a ‘bandwagon’ phenomenon, where more and more voters change sides to back a predicted winner.


5.2 Coverage of the unionist campaign

The party leaders published articles in all three regional papers, restating their electoral goals and the policies they wished to carry out. The tone of Mr Trimble’s writings was similar in each case. The UUP had taken the risks necessary to provide a safer future for the people, while the DUP had done nothing but try to wreck everything. The elections were a choice between ‘the past and the future’: the UUP was that future, committed to ending the ‘troubles’ and boosting growth and well-being; the role of the past was reserved for the DUP, which was clearly the main opponent.

Mr Trimble also backed the agreement, to which he devoted a lot of space in his articles–an unfortunate contradiction when we remember that he denied that the elections were mainly about it. He really could not break free from the questions imposed on him by the DUP, even describing his mission as ‘to save the agreement’ (Irish News, June 3rd 2001). Of course, in the nationalist press it was in his interest to commit himself totally to the agreement, to encourage possible cross-community voting.

There were indeed clear differences in Mr Trimble’s rhetoric, depending on the audience. In the News Letter (June 5th 2001), he called the Patten report on policing an insult, and argued there was a unionist veto inside the agreement. He claimed to be firm against the republican movement on decommissioning, while the DUP had done nothing. He warned that renegotiation of the agreement, as the DUP demanded, could mean more concession to nationalists. Antagonism was thus clearly represented as between unionism and nationalism, with Mr Trimble claiming to be sole protector of the former.

A week earlier, he wrote a similar article for the Belfast Telegraph (May 31st 2001). The tone was much the same, though this article was more about the threat posed by the DUP to the ‘peace process’ than any threat posed by nationalists. He asked voters to consider whether they were better off than a few years earlier. He was clearly donning the mantle of leader of the ‘peace process’, saying he had brought prosperity and security and such progress should not be risked.

In the Irish News (June 3rd 2001) his tone was quite different. He claimed that the UUP was entering ‘into these elections positively’, implying that the DUP was more negative, old-fashioned and antagonistic. He talked about the decommissioning of republican and loyalist weapons. He appealed to the people to vote intelligently, ‘to minimise the influence of those who would lead us back to the politics of yesterday’.

This clearly suggested that nationalists should vote tactically for UUP candidates, to minimise the DUP vote. Yet another contradiction: the man who advised unionist voters to vote for all unionist candidates on the list before looking elsewhere was asking nationalists for a favour he did not demand of his own ‘community’.

Mr Trimble was in a difficult position: on the one hand, he was trying to persuade unionist voters to back him as the best man to constrain nationalist advance; on the other hand, he was talking about a new political culture, distancing himself from ‘traditional’, protective unionism and asking for cross-community votes from nationalists. Yet in a region as small as Northern Ireland, messages that contradict each other cannot pass unnoticed. The message was blurred and the voters were left confused. Mr Trimble’s rhetoric was not very successful; on the contrary, it may have been quite damaging.

The rhetoric of Mr Paisley was quite different. He does not have to think about possible cross-community votes, or the bigger political picture. His sole aim was to maximise the vote for his party, his tactic to attack Mr Trimble and the agreement at every turn. Writing in the News Letter (June 5th 2001), the DUP leader claimed Mr Trimble was a traitor who had broken a litany of promises to unionist voters, including letting ‘terrorists’ into the government and caving in on decommissioning. A vote for the UUP was thus a vote for the nationalist and republican agenda. The DUP’s was accountable devolution, with democracy equated to majority rule.

This was not going to win over any nationalist votes, but Mr Paisley knew that. He was thus in a position to make his message far clearer and stronger than Mr Trimble, who was fighting on two fronts at the same time and tending to talk in vague abstractions. Mr Paisley pressed home the message in the Belfast Telegraph (May 31st 2001), where he claimed that, unlike his UUP rival, he was ‘as good as my word’.



5.3 Coverage of the nationalist campaign

In the nationalist bloc, the articles indicated a shift in Mr Adams’ tone in the final days of the campaign. In the Belfast Telegraph (May 31st 2001) his message was that the elections were mainly about the subsequent negotiations and the opportunity to enhance SF’s power by increasing its vote. SF was represented as the ‘engine of change’ which kept the ‘peace process’ rolling and the only force standing up to British ‘securocrats’. The tone was aggressive, accusing unionists of blocking progress and the SDLP of not being firm enough–though he did claim that an independent united Ireland would represent everybody.

In subsequent articles, the tone was moderated. SF was still the engine of change and unionists were still blocking progress, but he suggested that ‘working-class’ unionists would be better off with SF in power (News Letter, June 6th 2001). And in all three articles, Mr Adams did not once mention his main rival, the SDLP. He was effectively seeking to overtake it by ignoring it, claiming credit for the ‘peace process’ and–as the engine of change–removing whatever obstacles other parties placed in the way. Instead of attacking these latter directly, Mr Adams presented a positive message about his party, with its ‘unparalleled record of representing constituencies’ (Irish News, June 3rd 2001; News Letter, June 6th 2001).

In the Belfast Telegraph (May 31st 2001), Mr Hume began by emphasising that the SDLP had a long history of contesting elections but also had the capacity to reform. This was illustrated by lots of new candidates–especially women candidates– who represented ‘new faces for new politics’. Mr Hume emphasised the social-democratic nature of the party, its connections with others in Europe and its commitment to European integration. His tone towards other parties was quite negative, attacking SF in particular for its anti-euro policy. But his article ended with words of reconciliation, encouraging the (other) parties to leave their quarrels behind.

An article by his deputy, Mr Mallon, in the News Letter (June 6th 2001) was even more agreement-oriented, attributing huge benefits to the agreement and speaking of ‘bread and butter’ issues going forward in the assembly from which everyone would gain. The task of the SDLP was to make sure that the agreement was fully implemented, as it was the only major party to have lived up to its commitments.

But the message of both nationalist parties was not very polemical: compared with the rhetoric of the unionists, it bespoke a different kind of political battle. In the unionist camp it seemed obvious that party leaders were trying to win votes by polarising the message; in the nationalist camp it appeared to be the contrary. Neither of the nationalist parties focused on attacking the unionist camp.

Mr Adams hardly mentioned unionists, Mr Hume only briefly–indeed, in that sense, neither party made any apparent effort to collect cross-community votes. The tone of the SDLP against SF was clearly more aggressive than in reverse, but it cannot be said that it was engaged in an anti-republican campaign.

The theme in which the press was clearly most interested before the elections, in terms of the nationalist bloc, was whether SF would indeed overtake the SDLP’s vote share. The former had made it very clear that its aim was to do so en route to becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland, and so electing the first minister–an eventuality, Martin McGuinness claimed, which could materialise in five years (Belfast Telegraph, May 30th 2001). The possibility of an election pact was also discussed, before the SDLP refused the idea.

The SDLP also hoped to become the largest party in the region, repeating its success (in vote share) in the assembly elections of 1998. This was clearly stated by Mr Mallon at the manifesto launch (Irish News, May 23rd 2001). But the northern editor of the Irish Times wrote (May 18th 2001) of an ideological change inside the SDLP, spearheaded by the recently elected party chair, Mr Attwood. This ‘division’ crystallised more as the elections approached–and certainly in their aftermath.

The Irish News was obviously eager to explain the outcome, with its inevitable impact on the ‘peace process’ and the post-election negotiations. Addressing the SDLP, the paper editorialised (June 11th 2001) that the results ‘must inevitably prompt a period of reassessment on its part’. The ‘blurring of the gap’ between the two nationalist parties had been a major factor contributing to the SDLP’s defeat, it said. It had failed to utilise its ‘distinctive history and powerful ethos’.

A former vice-chair of the party, Tom Kelly, used the Irish News (June 11th 2001) to demand a change in the SDLP’s politics, claiming that it lacked the ‘momentum and the mood’ to win these elections. He also saw its downfall as having been in some ways inevitable, paradoxically because of its long history of electoral victories.

This was not a very persuasive explanation, being based neither on any empirical nor any universal tendency. Certainly the position of the SDLP cannot be compared with the plight of the Conservatives after their long rule was broken by ‘New’ Labour. Is there really an analogy between the ‘burden of power’ and the experience of a party which has hardly held any real power (in terms of running an executive) during its existence? Nor was this offered as an explanation of defeat in the ranks of the UUP, although its ‘burden of power’ (on a long-historical view) clearly exceeds that of the SDLP.

Mr Kelly analysed the defeat from two different perspectives. He claimed that irresponsible exploitation of the electorate’s worst fears by SF and the DUP had in itself given rise to their victories. Yet he also claimed the SDLP had failed to confront their ‘macho’ politics and highlight the dangers should the ‘extreme’ parties prevail. But the latter implied a stronger anti-SF campaign, which would have been a step backwards towards the old tribalism.

Nothing wrong with that in itself, but it was contradictory for Mr Kelly to base his analysis on the assumption that the SDLP had to renew itself. He argued that the electorate was not ready for the new, ‘post-nationalist’ politics which the SDLP had offered, yet he believed the future of the party required a new vision.

The message was mixed. On the one hand, Mr Kelly was asking for change but on the other advocating a stronger, traditional position against SF, on the grounds that the change on offer had been rejected. As such, the article can best be read as an indication of the confusion within the SDLP rather than a clear suggestion as to its future.

Perhaps a more analytical and less political analysis came that day in the same paper from the columnist and one-time SDLP councillor Brian Feeney. He noted that the party vote had not fallen very much since Westminster 1997; SF’s victory mostly stemmed from being more appealing to young and first-time voters. Continuation of this trend, of course, would mean a continued deterioration in the SDLP’s relative position. It would have to change its politics–but not necessarily for the reasons Mr Kelly offered.

Mr Feeney also noted the long-term impact this trend would have on unionist politics. Unionists would have to stomach an SF deputy first minister in the near future. Without such a change in unionist thinking, the ‘peace process’ would collapse because the institutions could not function. Mr Feeney concluded by saying that SF now had to decide what to do with its vote. The options were to stand firm, not ‘helping’ Mr Trimble, on the ground that hard-line unionists would only demand more, or to feel confident about making concessions on decommissioning, contributing to the ‘peace process’.

Common to the analyses after the elections was an attempt to ‘explain away’ the SF success. Many reasons were detected: a superior election machine, exploitation of the fears of the Catholic ‘community’, the lack of coherence in the SDLP’s campaign. One cannot help reading this as in part a refusal to acknowledge the electoral facts. Maybe the message SF put forward best suited the minds of Catholic electors in this context.

This does not mean that the SDLP should become more aggressive towards its rival. Nor does it mean that the party should do a U-turn, moving towards the politics of the republican movement: this would only further blur the gap.


5.4 The elections on television

Both the main channels, BBC and its commercial rival UTV, broadcast a range of programmes covering the elections. While UTV concentrated on interviewing and presenting particular candidates from different constituencies, BBC concentrated more on the party leaders and the broader political battle.

An interesting event occurred right at the start of the campaign, in UTV’s first election programme. The sitting candidate for North Belfast, Cecil Walker (UUP), flunked his appearance, failing to hear and answer the questions presented by the audience. This made the senior candidate look very weak. Eventually Mr Walker lost his seat in a landslide to Nigel Dodds (DUP) and the result was readily blamed on that dreadful appearance, even by Mr Walker’s supporters. The ratings of that show were, however, very low.

Overall, the BBC in particular had very high ratings for its coverage, contrary to the ‘apathy’ in other parts of the UK. Even so, the editor of BBC Northern Ireland’s election programmes, Lena Ferguson, claimed that, although the coverage was comprehensive, nothing said inside the studios really changed the way people voted. She argued that the views of particular candidates were already known and their appearances only strengthened prior stances.

If we accept this view, the ‘performative’ politics known in many countries, especially Italy, has arrived in Northern Ireland. Gone are the days, when John F Kennedy could triumph over Richard Nixon because of his better TV debating skills. Politics has been turned into show business, where election broadcasts, while providing the electorate with basic information about candidates, do not have any significant influence upon voting decisions. This, of course, comes with the rider that one cannot compare Northern Ireland with too many other political entities.

The least impressive performance in the elections, according to one insider, was by Mr Hume. He was described as tired and confusing, his abstract ‘post-nationalist’ political language difficult for the audience to understand.

Because of restrictions imposed mainly by the DUP, the broadcasters were unable to make the coverage as interesting as they otherwise might. DUP members’ refusal (mostly) to sit in the same studio with representatives of SF made any open debate impossible. And head-to-head duels between the party leaders, such as Trimble versus Paisley, were prevented by the fact that not all leaders favoured them.

6 A rerun of the agreement?

So what were the themes that dominated the election campaigns? One that rises above all the rest is of course the Belfast agreement–and whether, indeed, these elections were a rerun of the 1998 referendum, like the assembly elections of that year. While agreement talk dominated the discussion, at least in the unionist camp, the debate around it varied immensely.

In the unionist bloc, the discussion revolved around whether the agreement had done any good for the Protestant ‘community’. While the official line of the UUP was to defend the agreement and play up its benefits, the DUP rejected this, claiming that it had only benefited nationalists–at unionists’ expense. For the DUP this was a zero-sum game.

The DUP also claimed that the agreement did not enjoy the trust of most Protestants, arguing that it was therefore upheld against the wishes of ‘the majority of the majority’. It is arguable whether it is the aim of the DUP to ‘wreck the agreement’–the line it used to justify entry into the assembly–or to seize control of it, making sure that SF would be excluded from the assembly, or at least from the executive, in the absence of IRA decommissioning. It seems the DUP is also ‘moderating’ its politics and accepting the existence of the agreement–but only if implemented according to its wishes.

The agreement in many ways threatens the UUP much more than the DUP, however. While the DUP remains a fierce critic of the agreement, it has still taken its ministerial posts and is working in the assembly and its committees. The UUP, on the other hand, is facing a split because of the division between its pro- and anti- agreement members. The election defeats did little to unite the party.

Mr Trimble remained the party leader–saved perhaps by his resignation as first minister–because, in his own words, there was no one to whom he could hand the baton. The leading anti-agreement member Jeffrey Donaldson did not challenge Mr Trimble at the annual meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council but the party has to find a way to unite if it is to prevent further decline.

In the nationalist bloc there was, and is, much more coherence about the benefits of the agreement. Neither the SDLP nor SF wants it rewritten or suspended–one more reason why hard-line unionists believe it benefits nationalists more. What is dividing nationalists is the debate about implementing the agreement. While both the SDLP and SF have criticised the dominance of ‘decommissioning’ in the discussion, they differ over how to proceed. Although the SDLP maintains that what really matters is the decommissioning of mindsets, it has recently put pressure on SF to influence the IRA to speed up the process, and strongly criticised the SF’s inability or unwillingness to do so.

In some ways SF has left itself vulnerable to attack. On the one hand, throughout the election campaign it emphasised its leading role in the ‘peace process’. On decommissioning, however, the ‘engine of change’ has stuttered. Republicans played the ‘peace’ card and many are waiting for them to act accordingly.

SF maintains that it wants the whole agreement to be implemented–not just the decommissioning of IRA arms–and it claims that many parts of the agreement have not been. These include policing reform and human-rights issues. Republicans claim that they cannot give in to unionist demands if unionists themselves are failing to proceed.

Mr Trimble’s tactic of forcing the decommissioning issue may not have been the most effective. In an ethnic conflict ultimata and threats tend not to get positive answers. But it was partly chosen to help the UUP electorally–and unionists would say, of course, that everything else had been tried.

How will the elections affect the fragile Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ and the polarisation of its ‘two communities’? In terms of the process and the survival of the agreement, permanent damage has hardly been done. Although the moderate forces suffered a defeat in many senses–the UUP losing a number of seats and the SDLP losing its position as the main nationalist party–the implication that the electorate is becoming more extreme is arguable. The pro-agreement parties still constitute a majority, although the majority of the Protestant population is on a knife-edge.

Nevertheless, the results will undoubtedly trigger some changes in every party. Although the DUP was victorious it will need to clarify some of its positions, concerning its role in the assembly, to benefit fully from its increased mandate. There have been some signs of the party moderating its stance, although if the UUP were to harden its position in the wake of Mr Trimble’s resignation the DUP might fall back to its more traditional stance.

The one thing clearly separating the ‘extreme’ parties–the DUP and SF–from the ‘moderates’ is their greater coherence. Each speaks with one voice, and if there are debates and discussions about the party’s direction they take place in private. Contrast the public show of disobedience by those UUP candidates absent from the launch of their party manifesto. The UUP also undoubtedly suffered a great deal in these elections because the voters were confused about the politics of the party. Even its leader, Mr Trimble, sent out many contradictory messages, which deterred undecided voters.

The DUP and SF would run into trouble if they were ever given the leading role in this society. At this moment, it is impossible to think of them sharing power in the executive, but even their current roles cause problems. The difficulty is not so much that they are said to represent the hard-liners. The question is more whether these two parties are sufficiently democratic and open to enjoy a leading role.

The support base and ideology of these two parties, however, reveal many differences. The DUP is much more restricted, as its ideological base is quite narrow compared with the more general approach of SF. The latter is thus more likely to have a good prospect of continuous growth, without much change to its ideology. SF must, however, clear up some of its key concepts–like what talk of an ‘Irish socialist republic’ really means. And failure to deliver its election pledges could, of course, hinder its progress.

It is possible that the DUP vote has reached its peak, and that it cannot mount a real challenge to the UUP unless it changes its politics towards the more moderate mainstream. It is, however, another question whether it wants to do so. It is possible that the DUP is quite happy where it stands, and is not really going to push to be the biggest unionist party.

SF obviously is aiming for more aggressive growth. Its problem could be the military-style organisation of the party. In order to appeal to more moderate SDLP supporters, the party needs to renew itself. It is arguable that this renewal process began in these elections.

7 Conclusion

Can we identify any particular factors in the election campaigns and related forums which contributed to the results? And what conclusions can we draw in terms of the polarisation of the ‘two communities’? How does this all sit into the theoretical perspective of the friend-enemy axis and the peculiarities of Northern Ireland? The answers are complex and contingent. Nevertheless, we can make some observations.

As noted in the introduction, one of the peculiarities of the political system in Northern Ireland is that it comprises two separate blocs. The characteristics of this system include insignificant cross-community voting, so that there are in effect two political entities and any election, despite overlapping themes, bifurcates into two. One of the implicit hopes of the Belfast agreement was that this would change, rendering Northern Ireland a single political entity–strengthening the moderate centre, increasing the thematic overlap, leading eventually through cross-community voting to the birth of a normal liberal democracy. It is hard in these elections to detect any progress in that direction.

If the antagonism of the political bloc divide can be diminished, the rest of the community will follow. Despite the overall gloom about the election results, there were some signs of cross-community politics, at least on a rhetorical level, as in the case of Mr Trimble. The best examples of cross-community politics, are of course the smaller parties, like Alliance and the Women’s Coalition. If the antagonism between the two blocs were to show signs of weakening, these non-confessional parties would have a chance of becoming more influential.

Many commentators have argued, however, that these elections contributed to growing polarisation and hardened the attitudes of voters towards the rival bloc. This is undoubtedly in many cases true, and the elections were not a triumph for the ‘peace process’, although it would be too early to label them a setback.

There certainly was an overlapping theme–the agreement being the main topic in both camps–but this was not a step forward either. The fact remains that very little was discussed of actual policy suggestions, which after all constituted the bulk of the text in the party manifestos. The reduction of the elections to this single common theme paradoxically prohibited any cross-community debate on policy issues, thereby maintaining the partition between two separate contests.

It is not all that clear that in these elections the electorate became more polarised than in previous polls. This conclusion is easy to draw from the fact that both the DUP and SF significantly raised their vote shares. But with two separate elections going on, the reasons for the results may differ between the nationalist and unionist blocs.

The elections on the unionist side concentrated heavily on the agreement and the personality of Mr Trimble. Knowing that the Protestant ‘community’ was more or less divided down the middle, the task of leading a divided, officially pro-agreement party into the elections was not easy. Mr Trimble was in a difficult position, where he had to appeal to completely different voters inside his own party. His election rhetoric was bound to be full of contradictions, diminishing its effectiveness.

Mr Trimble’s position was such that he had to make a move. Whether the resignation letter was the right one is unknown but it did not succeed completely in pulling the rug from under the DUP. In terms of Schmitt’s theory, the downfall of the UUP was inevitable. It could not clearly identify its position on the political map of Northern Ireland, because of its internal division.

The task of the DUP–to offer a coherent, united alternative–was easy. The political environment before the elections dealt all the cards to Mr Paisley, resulting in the victory of his party. It is too easy to label the Protestant electorate as becoming more hard-line, even if it is clear that many are dissatisfied with the agreement. The DUP was in a much better position to pick up votes, yet still the UUP retained its position as the biggest unionist party–actually increasing its share since the assembly elections.

In the nationalist bloc the rise of the SF vote continued, and it was able to surpass the SDLP as the leading nationalist political party. The SDLP, too, had its own internal tensions, which may have hindered its election success, but the party cannot be said to have suffered a defeat. Its vote did not significantly drop, it retained all its Westminster seats and it lost only three of its councillors in the local elections.

The rise of SF has been a long-term trend: it has been going on for nearly ten years. The party seems to be appealing more to first-time-voting Catholics and to those who might not otherwise vote. Therefore, its success can hardly be simply a matter of polarisation. More positively, it could be interpreted as voters’ wish to encourage the republican movement along its non-violent path. And certainly it is an indication that many republican-minded people believe the new political institutions are having a positive impact on their lives: self-exclusion from the political arena would be a far more serious sign of polarisation.

The election results nevertheless pose a serious problem to the SDLP. In the past it has been able to look over its shoulder, to what the republican movement thinks, before making up its own mind. That possibility has gone: from now on, every time the SDLP supports an SF policy it risks being seen as acknowledging the republicans’ leading role in the Catholic ‘community’. To prevent this the SDLP has to find a way to distinguish itself more clearly, a problem already apparent during the election campaigns.

One way of understanding the results is to acknowledge the fact that the campaigns and messages of SF and the DUP were simply far more coherent and united–and therefore effective–than those of the UUP and the SDLP. Both of the ‘moderate’ parties had difficulties–though not the same difficulties–which affected their campaigning. This has nothing to do with polarisation of the electorate and it is perfectly normal in democratic systems.

Finally, and more broadly, pluralism is a concept praised by many politicians in Northern Ireland. It has been seen as delivering ‘parity of esteem’ between the ‘two communities’, teaching people to respect each other and value their opinions. Pluralism, however, has a darker side.

If a society becomes plural in the sense of institutionalising the differences between ‘communities’ within it, it cannot function as one political entity. In such a society, the ruling ‘community’ uses its power to maximise its own welfare against that of others. A plural society must be organised in a way that, while allowing different ‘communities’ to flourish, it also constitutes only one political entity, of which all its citizens must feel part.

The bipolar nature of these elections shows that Northern Ireland is more on the dark side of plural society. This must receive serious consideration if it is to secure a brighter political future.


Aughey, Arthur. 1997. ‘A state of exception: the concept of the political in Northern Ireland’, Irish Political Studies 12: 1-13

–––. 1999. ‘A new beginning? The prospects for a politics of civility in Northern Ireland’, in Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd (eds), After the Good Friday Agreement: Analysing Political Change in Northern Ireland. Dublin: University College Dublin Press

Boyle, Kevin and Tom Hadden. 1994. Northern Ireland: The Choice. London: Penguin Books

Elliott, Sydney and W D Flackes. 1999. Northern Ireland: A Political Directory 1968-1999. Belfast: Blackstaff Press

Hayes, Bernadette and Ian McAllister. 1999. ‘Ethnonationalism, public opinion and the Good Friday Agreement’, in Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd (eds), After the Good Friday Agreement: Analysing Political Change in Northern Ireland. Dublin: University College Dublin Press

Mitchell, Paul. 1999. ‘The party system and party competition’, in Mitchell and Rick Wilford (eds), Politics in Northern Ireland. Oxford: Westview Press

O’ Dowd, Liam. 1998. ‘"New unionism", British nationalism and the prospects for a negotiated settlement in Northern Ireland’, in David Miller (ed), Rethinking Northern Ireland: Culture, Ideology and Colonialism. London: Longman

Ruane, Joseph and Jennifer Todd. 1996. The Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland: Power, Conflict and Emancipation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

–––. 1998. ‘Irish nationalism and the conflict in Northern Ireland’, in David Miller (ed), Rethinking Northern Ireland: Culture, Ideology and Colonialism. London: Longman

Scmitt, Carl. 1976. The Concept of the Political. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press

[List of Reports] [List of Papers]

Democratic Dialogue {external_link}
53 University Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland BT7 1FY
Phone: +44 (0)28 9022 0050. Fax: +44 (0)28 9022 0051

Back to the top of this page